Drew Pisarra

Theater for the Ears

Stop. Listen. What's that sound? In the pandemic’s wake, Portland theater companies turn to audio drama.

“Radio is something that has to be believed to be seen.”

That line from an old Twilight Zone episode explains the appeal of not just radio drama, but any theater meant to be heard instead of viewed. And now there’s more to believe in.

Since the pandemic shut down live theater, our screens have filled with streaming videos of previous productions or new creations, many created via Zoom, with actors recording parts from their homes. But even though we’ve been said to be living in a visual age for generations now, maybe screen fatigue has finally pushed us to giving our overtaxed eyes a break. Because another form of streaming theater is enjoying a resurgence — audio dramas.

Vin Shambry records his lines in the audio version of Artists
Repertory Theatre’s Magellanica. Photo: Kathleen Kelly.

The radio/audio resurgence is a national, international, and Northwest regional phenomenon. While they lack important elements of live stagings — costumes, movement, a shared experience with other audience members, et al — the best audio productions offer unique degrees of intimacy, imagination, special effects, and the ability to time shift attendance. You can listen anytime, anywhere (with a pair of headphones), at least before the streaming period expires. And when your sleep is troubled by a Covid anxiety dream, or forestalled by seemingly endless political turmoil or forebodings of impending social collapse or climate catastrophe, and you don’t want to ruminate or activate those wake-up hormones by turning on a screen or bedside light… instead, you can reach for your headphones, close your eyes, and drift into another, possibly less fraught world.

“Zoom fatigue set in months ago, but audio is stepping into the breach to take us places that glazed screen-gazing can’t,” writes Alexandra Schwartz in The New Yorker. “The eyes tend toward the literal, while what we only hear can bloom, the way a novel does, in the privacy of the mind.”

We talked to several artistic directors of Portland theaters that are embracing audio drama to find out what they’ve experienced, learned, and predict about its future.

Radio Revival

Audio drama has been an alternative form of storytelling since its inception. Beginning in the 1920s and even during Hollywood’s Golden Age, Americans gathered around home radios to tune into radio dramas despite the silver screen’s visual blandishments. 

“From about 1930 to 1950, radio had a huge impact on American culture, bringing for the first time live performance into people’s homes,” Portland- based playwright, filmmaker, and producer John Longenbaugh wrote about in ArtsWatch in 2018. “During the Depression, when even a twenty-five cent ticket for a movie was a luxury, it was also virtually free entertainment—and that made it insanely popular.” 

Orson Welles’s notorious Halloween 1938 production of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds reached enough listeners to provoke a panic. Producer Norman Corwin’s popular radio dramas “reached as many as 60 million listeners – that’s nearly half the American population,” writes music historian and journalist Joseph Horowitz, who recently revived one of them, scored by famed Hollywood composer Bernard Herrmann.

Radio theater receded in television’s wake after World War II. “By 1955 the form was effectively dead in the United States,” wrote Longenbaugh. A new platform, podcasting, sparked a revival a few years ago, with companies like Audible presenting new stories. Longenbaugh wrote about Oregon’s role in the podcast revolution for ArtsWatch in 2018. His Battleground Productions produces a podcast series called BRASS that “involves a proto-fascist coup in this alt-Victorian England, with the Brass family becoming revolutionaries,” he explains. “I think depending on what happens in November it’s going to be an entertaining fantasia or a grim counter-narrative to our very troubled times.” With commuting reduced as the pandemic forces more work from home, we’ll see if that leaves listeners more or less time for podcast listening. 

And Oregon companies like Radio Redux, Tesla City Stories, Bag&Baggage Productions (with its Christmas plays) and Willamette Radio Workshop have completed the cycle by turning audio theater back into stage drama. That’s off limits for a while, of course. Now, with stages shuttered by the pandemic, theater companies are trying to reach audiences where they live, while keeping performers safe.

“Prior to COVID, some audio drama folks were already putting together their audio dramas at a ‘pandemic friendly’ distance,” says Longenbaugh. “But this sort of audio drama has just gone into overdrive.” Along with more traditional-style presenters like Playing On Air and Radio Drama Revival, companies that produce directly for podcast are springing up.

Pivoting to Audio in Portland

Just this fall, the list of audio theater productions in Portland includes:

Profile Theatre’s Mlima’s Tale by Lynn Nottage (ends November 4) and Hot ’n’ Throbbing by Paula Vogel (opens November 4), with Nottage’s Las Meninas coming up in December.

The Theatre Company’s The Moors by Jen Silverman and Vinegar Tom by Caryl Churchill (both streaming through November 14).

Artists Repertory Theatre’s five-part audio adaptation of its 2018 production of Oregon playwright E.M. Lewis’s Magellanica (available through June 30, 2021), which kicks off the company’s new Mercury Company (whose name is inspired by one of the great American radio theater companies) that will produce a series of audio dramas.

• Portland State University Theater presents Naomi Iizuka’s Anon(ymous) in a live-streamed radio play format beginning November 12.

• Northwest Film Center’s Spectral Transmissions: A Ghost Story Radio Show, “an audio and video/multimedia event created in the style of 1930s/1940s radio show that includes folk tales, memories, and personal accounts of hauntings from the supernatural to the political.” 

• The 2020 Isolation Version of Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s 2015 production All Well.

• Boom Arts enlisted San Francisco playwright and actress Denmo Ibrahim and Portland-based composer Ryan Anthony Francis to create You Are Not Alone, a 20-minute downloadable immersive solo sound walk (listen on headphones with your phone as audio source) that the company describes as “an interactive walking experience for one, where participants can explore their own neighborhood as the main character and their street as the stage.”

Earlier this month, Bag&Baggage Productions presented a new audio version of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s (not coincidentally) 2016 stage adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s novel warning against American fascism, It Can’t Happen Here (still available on YouTube).

•  Broadway Rose Theatre Company and All Classical Portland’s presented clever two-part adaptation of the Halloween-appropriate Sherlock Holmes & The West End Horror.

And more are coming this winter and spring, including a double bill from Imago Theatre, and from Longenbaugh’s own Battleground Productions, which just dropped the first episode of the fourth season of its BRASS podcasts, whose theme echoes It Can’t Happen Here. (For some reason, fascism is front and center again.)  I bet we’re leaving some out — please let readers know of others in the comments section below.  

Intimate Immersion

“I’ve always been really fascinated with the imaginative potential of audio drama,” says Josh Hecht. Back in his New York days, long before he took over artistic direction of Portland’s Profile Theatre, Hecht created a ‘traveling audio play” to be listened to while walking the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan. 

Audio drama is “totally immersive in nature,” he says, especially when produced with good sound design and music. “You can lie down on the couch and close your eyes and be transported around the world. Audio becomes a very intimate personal experience of the work, as opposed to a communal gathering” in live theater, where “studies show our heartbeats actually sync up. So many of us are so exhausted with Zoom and computer screens. The freedom to close my eyes and be immersed in a story is really appealing.” 

However, unlike live stagings, audio theater also allows for non-immersive listening. “You can listen to it while walking through Forest Park or having dinner,” Hecht says, a major convenience. “I try not to be too prescriptive about” how audiences listen.

Hecht prefers audio drama to the Zoom experiments he’s seen so far. “Zoom plays for me continually point toward the thing I’m missing: an approximation of the experience of being in the theater. Whereas audio drama has the potential to really be the thing it sets out to be, as opposed to pointing out the thing it isn’t.”

Intimacy and transportation describe how it felt to experience Lynn Nottage’s Mlima’s Tale, the latest in Profile’s new series of audio plays, which I listened to from my couch, headphones on, lights off. My imagination easily followed Nottage’s ingeniously constructed story as it proceeded through a series of interlocking duet vignettes, with one character moving to the next scene, then the character she meets moving on to the next, and so on, stretching from various African locations to Vietnam, China and beyond. Along the way, we learn the pervasive corruption at each step that caused Mlima’s death.

Even though the play was conceived for a standard staging (and hastily adjusted, with the playwright’s permission, to adapt to audio), in at least one respect it might have worked better in my ears than in front of my eyes. In the staged version, which I’ve never seen, the narrator title character, the spirit of a butchered elephant, originally appeared as a live dancer. But no matter how well costumed, that literal appearance, played by a human, couldn’t have been as haunting as the voice in my ears. And the evocative sound design effectively conjured distant worlds. 

On the other hand, some descriptive dialogue and stage directions (voiced in this audio version by the narrator) that necessarily tell the audience what’s going on occasionally sounded unavoidably clunky. And I have to admit that by the end, for all the intimacy that really moved me, it also did feel a little hermetic, and I missed that communal aspect of sharing the experience and seeing how fellow theatergoers reacted, something I’d never really appreciated  before.

Making audio theater can be a complex process. Rehearsals for Profile Theatre’s production of Mlima’s Tale involved six days of actors interacting separately from their respective homes on Zoom live. Line producer Jamie Rea advised actors on setting up home studios, and made sure they had the right equipment. Actors wearing headsets recorded their final parts using an audio editor while acting live over Zoom, and uploaded those to the cloud, where Rea and then audio engineer Robert A.K. Gonyo worked their magic, sent the results to director Reginald L. Douglas, who sent them back to Gonyo with notes for changes, then back to director Douglas for final approval, then on to the Ittoop and Mundia to score, then back to Douglas for final approval.

The cast of ‘Mlima’s Tale’: Keith Randolph Smith, Treasure Lunan, Ithica Tell, Delphon ‘DJ’ Curtis Jr.

It’s been an intense learning process. “In just a few weeks, we’re pivoting an entire production team, making a serious play in which no two people are ever in the same room throughout the process, streaming things from our website, creating a paywall and membership — all for the first time,” Hecht says. “That’s been both stressful and really satisfying to teach ourselves. After a spring of dealing with cancellations, cash flow projections, financial reports… it felt so good at that first rehearsal to get back to making something, to get back to art. This whole community is really hungry for that.”

Even though audiences tell him they’re missing that night on the town atmosphere, Hecht says the response has been “really positive,” with special praise for Jenn Mundia’s original music and Elishba Ittoop’s evocative sound design. He expects the primary demographic to be theater junkies needing a fix, the company’s core audience, but also the younger audiences more accustomed to podcasts. Final numbers aren’t in yet but will probably be lower than a live run would have garnered. 

But while revenues are down, so are costs. “When there’s no theater to rent and no set to build and costumes to make, the entire production budget goes to people,” Hecht says— actors and creative and production teams.  “I‘m very proud of the fact that Profile spent $100,000 on our fall series alone on people, paying 50-plus artists and technicians an average wage of $2,000. That puts money in their pockets when they really need it. We’re putting people back to work.”

Sound Stage

The pandemic has been a disaster for almost all theater companies, but it was especially dispiriting for The Theatre Company, because it disrupted the new venture’s very first production and threatened its second. They were already in tech rehearsal for Jen Silverman’s The Moors when the world shut down.

On the other hand, TTC might be as well positioned as any company to handle the new reality, as founder/co-artistic directors Jen Rowe and Brandon Woolley explicitly founded it on the basis that it would have no set venue. 

“Because we do not have as much overhead as traditional models — we don’t have to pay thousands of dollars rent — we can think more grandly,” explains Woolley, who directed The Moors. “We asked ourselves, ‘How can we offer something new and exciting for this post-Covid world?’ It’s worked out very much to our advantage to have pushed and challenged ourselves about why we want to create something new. It was a stroke of luck that both of these plays lend themselves to audio versions. You can get a full experience of what the playwrights want to say through the audio version.”

Because The Moors, streaming through Nov. 14, is a sly, seductive Gothic spoof with the protagonist effectively trapped in a lonely manor out in the boonies, the intimacy of audio theater suits its comic claustrophobic mood. 

 “You get to be right in people’s ears,” says Rowe, who performs in the show. “There’s a connection and intimacy with the audience you just don’t get to on stage. When you’re standing there and see your scene partner across the room but also feel and hear them in your ears, it also transforms it into a more intimate performance as an actor. It’s a completely different experience.”

Recording ‘The Moors.’ Lorraine Bahr, Paul Glazier, Kelly Godell, Dana Millican, Sasha Neufeld, and Jen Rowe.

They’d originally planned to perform The Moors at Portland’s TaborSpace and Vinegar Tom at  The Hallowed Halls, best known as a music venue, which works well for sound recording. When the shutdown scuttled performing at the former, they shifted both recordings to the latter. The actors rehearsed over Zoom, then were all Covid-tested, and convened at safe, socially distant spacing to record the final version live over two days. They worked closely with an expert  sound engineer and learned a lot about microphones and recording, so the final product avoids Zoom’s frequent dropouts and other technical limitations and sounds clear and convincing.

The precision of sound available in an audio recording “helps to clarify the storytelling so much,” Woolley says. “We’re able to do things there that we’re not able to do in a live production that makes it so much more exciting.” Music (Merideth Kaye Clark in The Moors and Lynx in Vinegar Tom) and sound design (by, respectively, Adam Smith and Cameron McFee) assumed new prominence in an ears-only experience. 

Rowe and Woolley, like Hecht, praise the intimacy of audio theater. But intimate doesn’t necessarily mean isolated. “You can turn off your screen, turn down the lights, hunker down into another world with a glass of wine, and listen to The Moors for two evenings,” says Woolley, who lives in a house with several other people. “It’s fun to be able to do that and commune with people in a safe way.” 

Brandon Woolley

He suggests listeners can even have live listening parties over social media, texting back and forth through the show — the socially distant analogue to friends or partners gathering (or snuggling up) to stream a movie or TV series. Rowe has listened to The Moors once while making soup (as she and many of us do while listening to podcasts), and another time during a little courtyard party while sipping whiskey around a fire. 

Rowe notes that audio theater’s portability and on-demand listening make it more accessible. “At any point in the day, you can turn it on and listen,” she says. “You can complement it by crocheting a sweater or carving a pumpkin. You can pause it whenever you want. That kind of accessibility feels really delicious and not typically afforded an audience.” And a friend of hers living in Algeria can tune into her latest show in Portland, as can Woolley’s family in Texas. 

From Image to Imagination

Portland’s Imago Theatre might be the last company you’d expect to go audio. After all, founders Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad learned their craft from the mime and movement theater pioneer Jacques Lecoq, and wordless spectacles like the internationally acclaimed Frogz have brought it renown and remuneration rare for indie theater. But imagery isn’t all that Imago does.

“Imago has a lot of different audience bases,” Triffle explains. “The shows we market for family audiences are heavily physical or visual. But our other audiences expect us to push the limits,” and every season boasts productions that rely as much on words as any other drama. Mouawad says creating mime theater with few props surprisingly prepared them to produce audio. 

“It’s all about where are the performers, what is the room, what are they doing, how do we create a sense of the space we’re in,” he explains. “It’s also important in an audio play knowing where we are. All of our work has prepared us for creating audio plays.”

Jerry Mouawad

This spring, Imago is producing a double bill of one-act audio plays. The primary imperative was financial. Imago is one of the fortunate companies that actually owns its production and performance space, but it still has expenses, and except for a temporary commercial renter, “the building’s been dark,” Mouawad says. “We’re facing an existential crisis with theater.” So having received grants to produce new plays, Imago shifted to an audio format for its spring double bill. 

Based on a concept by Mouawad, New York playwright Drew Pisarra’s The Strange Case of Nick N involves a man who remembers only the previous 30 seconds of his life, and was originally intended for live performance. But when that became impossible, Pisarra realized his original “conventional linear narrative would be boring as a radio play,” he recalls. He’d been intrigued by audio theater since childhood, “when I heard a radio play about a ventriloquist dummy who kills people on a boat,” he remembers. “I still remember the sense of suspense it created.”

Remembering this summer’s Public Theater podcast of Shakespeare’s Richard III in which the narrator invites the audience into the story, he rewrote his own play to frame the story with a psychiatrist character listening to taped recordings of a client and their caretaker. “You’re eavesdropping on the eavesdropper,” Pisarra explains. Now, listeners will sometimes imagine they’re in the room with the narrator, sometimes years in the past, the switches evoked by sound design. 

Poet and playwright Drew Pisarra

As often happens in art, the constraint imposed by audio-only format actually intensified the story; without giving anything away, the idea sounds even creepier as he described it. “Restrictions can work to your advantage,” Pisarra says, as in the strict poetic forms of sonnets, haiku, and sestina. 

Audio’s limitations also enhanced the second show, Happy Times. “For me, it’s always good to have a constraint,” writer/director Triffle says. “When I have that, even though its difficult to work with, it usually provokes you so much that the story only gets better.” For example, “in audio, you can’t rely on gags or long pauses. The audience won’t see it and they’ll think something’s gone wrong.”

And like Pisarra, she involves the play’s narrator in the action, taking her cue from that most (in)famous of radio plays, Orson Welles and Howard Koch’s version of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Another influence: Alfred Hitchcock’s claustrophobic movie Rope. Both she and Pisarra note that current events from politics to protests to pandemic have influenced their originals. “The pandemic has bled into the script in weird ways,” Pisarra says. “As somebody who lives alone, the whole notion of your living space becoming your cage has manifested itself in the script.” 

Writing dialogue is different too. “Words become like music,” Triffle says. “In an audio play, you only have the texture of the words and the voice and some music. It’s made me direct differently. I have to make the actors think they’re in a room with one other person, instead of a large audience, like in a staged audio play with old style effects. I’m trying to make it so much more intimate.”

Carol Triffle

Sound and music assume larger roles in audio theater, so Triffle co wrote songs and worked with a sound engineer for additional effects. “I always think a song can propel you to another dimension or help you visualize where the action is going or provide relief for comedy or tragedy,” she says.

She likes audio’s constraints a lot more than Zoom’s, which she says limits isolated actors’ ability to convincingly interact with one another in real time. On the other hand, since they can read from scripts, voice actors don’t have the stress of memorizing lines, which the writers can also adjust throughout the process without causing consternation. 

Pisarra also laments the surge of Zoom and other video productions of material not intended for those platforms. Nick M, by contrast “was meant just to be heard,” he insists. “You’re not seeing a staged theater piece flattened out on a screen.” He does appreciate any theater’s lack of geographical restrictions, meaning he can invite his fellow Brooklynites to tune into his new play produced in Portland. 

Nevertheless, for all the differences between audio and stage, Mouawad says their experience of making the latter is really helping them create the former. “Even though you’re only listening, it’s still about where we are and what we imagine them doing,” says Mouawad, who directs the show. “This is definitely a time to return to the golden age of radio.”

Hybrid Future

These early ventures into 21st century audio theater have already yielded some lessons, technical and directional. 

“We learned we needed a lot more time for production after the actors were done recording,” Hecht says of Profile’s first audio theater attempt in the spring, Claudia. “We were really fighting the clock to get those pieces up.” (That sounds a lot like what Chamber Music Northwest’s Peter Bilotta told ArtsWatch about its video streamed festival.) For Mlima’s Tale, Hecht built into the schedule a six-week production timeline and created more check-ins along the way for the various steps.

“We also learned to lock the dialogue edit first before we start layering in sound,” instead of editing a completed, overdubbed track, reducing the amount of sound balancing and mastering needed. Future audio theater producers who are used to opening a show shortly after the actors have memorized their lines and rehearsed scenes will have to adapt their traditional timelines to accommodate the extra time needed for such post-production details, as film producers already do. 

Josh Hecht, artistic director of Portland’s Profile Theatre.

“As a culture, we’re teaching ourselves new skills,” Hecht says. “I know a lot of subscribers who’ve never used Zoom before. I hadn’t.”

These and many other lessons actually bode well for theater’s future, he and others predict. “All of these are skills we’re going to hang on to. They’re not just temporary but for the long haul. I’m convinced that when we’re back to live theater, we are still going to be creating podcasts.” 

And more. Hecht doesn’t want to spoil the surprise, but promises that Profile’s 2021 schedule will include “a mix of things. We do want to keep playing with and exploring form. For us, next year is a real incubator, a time of risk taking and trying things and throwing spaghetti on the wall and seeing what sticks.” He predicts that, amid the uncertainty about when it’s safe to return to social gathering, many companies will include audio and/or video theater of some kind in their seasons.

That includes The Theatre Company. “Having gotten into the recording studio and flexed that muscle and explored that medium now, I think audio theater is something we’ll do even if we’re doing live plays next fall,” Woolley says. “The same goes for other streaming performances. It’ll be a hybrid model of different ways we’re delivering art to our audience around the country and abroad.”

In the long run, everyone expects live theater to return, even if augmented by other forms. “I strongly feel that live theater will have a giant renaissance,” Mouawad says, “because people want to be around people.”

The Theatre Company’s Jen Rowe

But this forced interruption in traditional ways of making theater will leave a lasting impact.

“It’s a time of exploration and innovation,” Rowe says. “What an exciting time for arts makers to be asked to innovate and pick up new skills and tools. These mediums have been functioning in their own silos for so long. I’m curious how these new resources and skills we’re learning from each other are going to make us move forward as an artistic community.”

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Have you experienced some of Oregon’s recent audio theater productions? Let us know what you thought in the comments below.

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